So, I want to talk today about cliffhangers. You know, when you leave the reader hanging, or the fate of a character or some important plot item uncertain. They are also annoyingly common in season finales of television shows, but that is probably not important right now.
In “The Cromm Conspiracy”, and many of my other longer works, I liked to leave cliffhangers at the end of each chapter. They keep the reader coming back, but with it being between chapters, the reader can always elect to read further, and get the resolution. A hooked reader is a happy reader!
However, at the same time, there are so many ways writing a cliffhanger can go badly. The resolution can be unsatisfying, or maybe the cliffhanger was uninteresting or too weak.
Cliffhangers can involve a major character being in some kind of immediate danger or a big reveal of a crucial plot twist, but they can also be simpler. In order to make a cliffhanger, all I really have to do is stop in the middle of the scene, at a moment where something is happening. If somebody approaches the main character saying he’s got a phone call, it’s not a big cliffhanger, but the reader will still be wondering about the significance of the phone call.
Though generally, there has to be something of some significance left unresolved. The phone call can be important, but it could also seem like a red herring depending how I write it. If I say the phone call’s from a specific character, or somebody like the president, it would become more significant.
The first rule of writing cliffhangers is never to write one without knowing how it’s going to be resolved first. If I was to write a cliffhanger because I thought it would be a neat plot twist, but didn’t know how I’m going to resolve it, I can easily get myself stuck, cause me to take my story in a different direction than I’d originally planned, or leave me with an unsatisfying ending.
Worst case scenario: I have no choice but to ret-con the cliffhanger away, or resolve the cliffhanger through a deus ex machina, a really bad option (note to self – future reflection topic). Thankfully, in my case, I can avoid this by going back and editing the cliffhanger, but if I already published the cliffhanger, this may not be an option.
Writing a cliffhanger without knowing how to resolve it isn’t always a disaster, though. Star Trek’s famous “The Best of Both Worlds” cliffhanger was written by an author whose contract was just about up. He didn’t expect to be back next season to write the resolution, so nobody knew how to resolve it. The show did turn out well, it is one of Star Trek’s greatest episodes, but there are so many ways it could have gone wrong.
When I wrote the cliffhangers in Cromm, I sometimes did something as simple as setting up for the next chapter. I considered what I wanted to do in the next chapter, and just started writing in that direction. If there’s a problem to be dealt with in the next chapter, introduce that.
My other rule for cliffhangers is only to write them if I know definitively that I will resolve it. I’m not going to end a story on a cliffhanger unless I know for certain that I’m going to write a sequel to resolve the issue. Cliffhangers can keep readers coming back, but readers don’t want to be left hanging indefinitely.
Though I suppose there are times this might be okay, if the fact that the cliffhanger is unresolved can be an important purpose of the story. Perhaps a character ends up in a no-win scenario, and showing how they respond to it would take away from the story. I haven’t written anything like this, but I suppose it’s possible (a possible future experimental story, maybe).
I’ll ponder that thought while I finish my reflection post for the week. White Rakogis, signing off!